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Cartographic Resources for the Study of Colonial South Asia at the Digital South Asia Library

Gerald Hall
Digital South Asia Library


Color-coded illustration of "prevailing languages" from Imperial Gazetteer of India, 1909 Edition

Maps and the making of maps are crucial to the study of colonialism in South Asia. Maps not only make narrative descriptions of a place more comprehensible and compelling but also can provide significant evidence for understanding the creators of those maps. For these reasons, the addition of the three important cartographic resources to the Digital South Asia Library will benefit the study of colonialism in the region.

Hunter, William W., James S. Cotton, Richard Burn and William S. Meyer, eds. Imperial Gazetteer of India, Atlas. 1909 edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909.
Hunter, William W., James S. Cotton, Richard Burn and William S. Meyer, eds, Imperial Gazetteer of India, Atlas. 1931 edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931.
Schwartzberg, Joseph E. A Historical Atlas of South Asia.2nd impression, with additional material. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Imperial Gazetteer of India Atlas Volumes

The first edition of the Imperial Gazetteer of India published in 1881 was immediately hailed as a monumental accomplishment. With little exaggeration the Times proclaimed the nine volumes produced under the editorship of William Wilson Hunter as, “the completion of the largest national enterprise in statistics which has ever been undertaken.”1 Yet very soon thereafter nine volumes were considered insufficient to describe the scope and complexity of India to the British public. Even after increasing to 14 volumes in the second edition of 1887, the gazetteer was soon again found lacking in important ways. This dissatisfaction was due in part to the almost complete absence in the work of cartographic representations to accompany the complex cavalcade of essays and statistics presented to the readers. Contemporary critics observed that the 14 volumes of the second edition contained only, “a single map showing the whole of India on a very small scale.”2

Under the direction of a new editor in India, William S. Meyer, the third edition of the Imperial Gazetteer published in 1909 remedied this shortcoming. Now grown to 26 volumes and intended, “to be of use to officials in India,” as well as the general public, the third edition included a separate atlas volume comprised of 64 plates organized into three categories:

  1. 28 general maps illustrating physical, economic, and social characteristics of the whole of India
  2. 20 provincial maps and
  3. 16 maps of important towns.3

The maps were far from an afterthought or simple ornamentation. Although the maps are undoubtedly beautiful, another editor of the gazetteer, Richard Burn, did not overstate the case when he asserted in 1908 that, “no part of the ‘Gazetteer’ has received more careful attention than the Atlas.”4 In planning and organizing the atlas volume, Meyer marshaled the expertise and experience of the British administration in India in an unprecedented fashion so that the Times reported that, “all the work had received an official Imprimatur from being submitted to the responsible authorities.”5 For cartographic detail Meyer drew upon the resources of the renowned Survey of India. These cartographic elements were then combined with data from the research of preeminent scholars and administrators. For example, the data for two linguistic maps were compiled by George A. Grierson, the editor of the Linguistic Survey of India.6

It was understood that publishing the resulting maps would require an experienced hand, someone capable of representing complex details in an attractive and comprehensible style. To this end the gazetteer employed the foremost map publisher of the period, John G. Bartholomew. Descended from a renowned family of map makers, Bartholomew transformed the family business from “a company producing maps solely for specific customers,” to “a fully fledged publishing house with its own list of numerous popular titles.7 Bartholomew’s experience in producing complex maps for popular audiences is evident in the uncluttered presentation of the atlas volume.

In bringing together the cartographic expertise of the Survey of India, the foremost scholarship of the time, and an experienced map publisher, the atlas volume of the third edition of the Imperial Gazetteer of India became an invaluable tool not only for the British public and Indian administrators of the time but also for students and scholars considering British conceptions of India at a particular moment in history. The scheme of the volume was successful enough that it was replicated, with minor revisions to reflect newer data, in the final edition of the gazetteer published in 1931.

Schwartzberg Historical Atlas of South Asia

The Imperial Gazetteer atlas maps amply demonstrate British conceptions of their imperial possessions in South Asia at the time of their publication, but they do not portray the development of that empire much less its antecedents. Only three of the 64 plates of the 1909 edition of the Imperial Gazetteer were historical, two of those dedicated to a demonstration of the expansion of British dominion in South Asia—an ever increasing spread of imperial pink. Perhaps because of a lack of official cooperation and coordination of the kind provided by the Raj for the Imperial Gazetteer, no satisfactory scholarly historical atlas of South Asia was produced during the four decades after the publication of the 1931 edition of the Imperial Gazetteer atlas.8 The want of an historical atlas prompted a group of scholars at the University of Minnesota in 1964 to inaugurate a project to rectify this lacuna.

Under the ultimate editorship of Joseph Schwartzberg, A Historical Atlas of South Asia was finally published in 1978 to considerable critical acclaim.9 It is the second impression of the atlas published in 1992 that is presented at the Digital South Asia Library. An extra large folio volume comprised of 155 plates of images and more than 200 pages of accompanying text, the Historical Atlasis divided into 14 sections containing cartographic illustrations of the social, economic, and political history of South Asia from prehistory until 1971.

Like the Imperial Gazetteer, the Historical Atlas is the monumental product of an alliance of preeminent scholars, skilled cartographers, and an experienced map publisher supported, at least in part, by government funds in the form of grants from the United States Office of Education. The cartographic expertise was provided by the American Geographical Society whose work was then prepared for publication by the renowned map publishers Rand McNally and Company. A striking difference between the Imperial Gazetteer atlas volumes and the Historical Atlas is their contrasting approach to the authority of their maps. Schwartzberg chose to acknowledge and extensively document “conflicting and doubtful interpretations,” before coming to a decision about where a boundary might be drawn rather than simply cite the imprimatur of bureaucratic expertise.10

Perhaps because the Historical Atlas attempts to portray the developments of a region through time while also considering conflicting interpretations, the maps might seem, as some critics have complained, somewhat cluttered.11 It is hoped that the Historical Atlas will be invaluable to users because the maps reflect both the complexity of historical places and the complicated social enterprise of attempting to represent those places cartographically. Taken together, the atlas volumes of the Imperial Gazetter and the Historical Atlas will inform and elucidate scholarship on South Asia.

1 Times, 16 August 1881, 3.
2 Burn, Richard, “The Imperial Gazetteer of India,” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 56 (1907: Nov. 22 —1908: Nov. 13), 366.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., 367.
5 Times, 15 February 1908, 2
6 These maps will be of particular value and interest to students and researchers in the context of published volumes and sound recordings from the Linguistic Survey of India that will be added to the Digital South Asia Library during the coming year.
7 John C. Bartholomew and K. L. Winch, “Bartholomew family (per. 1805–1986),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, October 2006, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/58384 (accessed September 12, 2007).
8 B. H. Farmer, “The Mapping of South Asian History,” Journal of Historical Geography, 6, 3 (1980), 325-329.
9 John E. Brush and Stanley Brush, “Review: A Historical Atlas of South Asia by Joseph E. Schwartzberg,” Geographical Review, 70, 4 (1980), 478-481.
10 John E. Brush and Stanley Brush, “Review: A Historical Atlas of South Asia by Joseph E. Schwartzberg,” Geographical Review, 70, 4 (1980), 479.
11 B. H. Farmer, “The Mapping of South Asian History,” Journal of Historical Geography, 6, 3 (1980), 327.

Sir William Wilson Hunter: A lifetime of service

Sir William Wilson Hunter (1840–1900) was a devoted administrator and historian of India. In 1861, he joined the Indian Civil Service and served as Assistant Magistrate and Collector at Birbhum, Bengal (1862–65) and Superintendent of Labour Transport at Kushtia (1865–1869). In 1869, Lord Mayo, the new Viceroy of India, commissioned Hunter to collect information for an all-India gazetteer. This work would occupy 12 years of his life, the culmination of which is the Imperial Gazetteer of India (1881).

Hunter traversed the country in his position, and himself undertook the supervision of the Statistical Account of Bengal (20 vols., 1875–1877) and the Statistical Account of Assam (2 vols., 1879). In addition to these duties, Hunter pursued his scholarly interests in languages and peoples of India. His writings during this period and after his retirement from the civil service in 1887 focused on many aspects of Indian culture and Britain’s impact on the region. Of note was his controversial work The Indian Musalmans: are they bound in conscience to rebel against the queen? (London: Trübner and Co., 1871), in which he accused Muslims in India of being “seditious masses in the heart of an Empire.” One of Hunter’s lifetime desires was to compile a comprehensive history of India, though he was to realize only two volumes of the work before his death (A History of British India. London; New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1899–1900).

Riddick, John F. The History of British India: A Chronology. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2006. Cotton, J. S. "Hunter, Sir William Wilson (1840–1900)," rev. S. Gopal, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004), http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/14237 (accessed September 12, 2007).